Funding Legal Aid – Does the Government Have its Priorities Straight?
If you have a limited budget to support Legal Aid, who would you let access the funds, the poorest sector of society or the wealthiest? You would think the answer is obvious but BC’s track record may just go against common sense on this issue.
The Government is receiving some heat from the Trial Lawyers Association of BC’s current campaign regarding the state of Legal Aid funding in BC. In short the TLABC points out that Legal Aid in BC is “a seriously underfunded system. The current and long-time lack of legal aid leaves too many people in need of help, and the lawyers involved have been working in a crisis situation for far too long“.
The Government of BC has recently announced that they will commit an additional $2 million in funding to the system. This is a far cry from what’s needed to restore the system to functioning levels. The concerns are not just coming from the TLABC but also the judiciary with the Chief Justice of the BC Supreme Court stating that prolonged underfunding has possibly put the judicial system “in peril“.
This leads to the question of whether the money to properly fund Legal Aid is simply not available or whether the Government’s priorities lie elsewhere. A good argument can be made for the latter given the Government’s choices for funding access to justice.
Despite the poor shape of BC’s legal aid system, The Government finds money to help some of the highest income earners with their legal costs. I’m referring to the Canadian Medical Protection Association fee subsidy.
For those of you not familiar with the CMPA, they are a group that “provides professional liability protection for Canadian physicians in the form of advice and legal assistance“. In other words, they defend civil suits against doctors in cases of alleged professional negligence.
As with any liability insurance, CMPA protection costs money. The fees doctors pay for their professional liability insurance vary depending on practice area but overall are not particularly high. These can be found here. What you may not know is that the BC Provincial Government reimburses these dues to a significant extent. Specifically the BC Government rebates “the difference between the current year CMPA dues and the dues for the base year 1985“. That is, they pay the value of over 25 years of inflation.
So how much money are we talking about here? I don’t have the current numbers but in 2008 the Victoria Times Colonist reported that “The B.C. government funnelled nearly $53 million through the B.C. Medical Association to the CMPA over the last three years“.
The CMPA, from a financial perspective, has done very well over the years. They have accumulated over $3 billion in investment assets according to their 2010 report. In fact, the CMPA reports that their financial position is so strong that “Excluding the funds committed to capital assets and a risk retention reserve fund, this leaves the Association holding $572 million in unrestricted net assets.“. That’s over half a billion dollars of “unrestricted” assets.
As a BC taxpayer I can’t help but ask myself who is a better beneficiary of the $50 plus million dollars the Government has used to subsidize liability insurance dues, the CMPA with half a billion dollars in unrestricted net assets, or the folks who qualify for the below financial test for legal aid in BC:
As always, comments and feedback are welcome.